Posts tagged ‘Exclusion Crisis’

09/02/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 7)

“Some bills Philander left her, and was so plain with her, and open-hearted, he told her that he went indeed with Cesario, but it was in order to serve the King; that he was weary of their actions, and foresaw nothing but ruin would attend them; that he never repented him of any thing so much, as his being drawn in to that faction; in which he found himself so greatly involved, he could not retire with any credit…”

The concluding stages of The Amours Of Philander And Sylvia – and of Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister – finds Aphra Behn returning to the roman à clef format of her first volume, in order to deal with the events of June and July, 1685. First, however, like Behn herself, we must consider the fate of Sylvia, deserted once again by Philander who has left her to join Cesario and the other rebels.

In the wake of Philander’s departure, he and she between them having used up the bulk of what they filched from Octavio, Sylvia is thrown back upon her only remaining support: Brilliard, still fixated upon her, still biding his time and waiting for the chance that has finally come. Here we get a perverse kind of inversion of the relationship between Sylvia and Octavio, as now it is Sylvia who tries to create a fantasy world where she is still the great lady, Brilliard still her servant, her tool –  and Brilliard who plays along for his own purposes.

His tactics finally yield the desired result. Alone and with her resources dwindling, Sylvia begins to rely on Brilliard more and more, taking him into her confidence and at length allowing him to become increasing familiar with her, until, “Sylvia no longer resisted, or if she did, it was very feebly, and with a sort of wish that he would pursue his boldness yet farther; which at last he did, from one degree of softness and gentle force to another, and made himself the happiest man in the world.” Sylvia suffers reaction, naturally, but Brilliard has learned how to manage her: “He redoubled his submission in so cunning a manner, that he soon brought her to a good humour; and after that, he used the kind authority of a husband whenever he had an opportunity, and found her not displeased at his services.”

At this point, it seems likely that we are to be witness to Sylvia’s downward spiral; her growing dependence upon Brilliard; her inability to survive without a man; her final, abject destruction. Then something extraordinary happens: Sylvia shakes off her funk and pulls herself together. She cannot indeed survive without a man – in the sense that they have the money she needs – but that’s not to say she must submit to their terms.

The remainder of Sylvia’s story finds her increasingly taking charge of her own life. First she detatches herself temporarily from Brilliard, dons her boy’s clothes, and sets out on adventures of her own. She encounters a Spanish nobleman, Don Alonzo, who is young, handsome and wealthy – and finds herself sharing a bed with him, still in her man’s disguise. She sets herself to win him, and succeeds so well that Alonzo, “…was not seen in Brussels for eight days and nights after.”

Behn’s choice of language here is remarkable. We hear how Sylvia, “…gained that evening a thousand conquests; but those were not the trophies she aimed at, it was Alonzo was the marked-out victim, that she destined for the sacrifice of love.” Conquest…trophies…victim…sacrifice… We’ve heard all this before, but in another context: this is the language of Philander, from the beginning of our story. And most significantly of all, we hear that Sylvia is dying for Alonzo…

In short, Sylvia has become Philander – but a more successful Philander – a Philander who, absorbing the lessons of her botched affair with Octavio, has learned to keep her eyes on the prize. At length we find her juggling four men at once – conducting her affair with Alonzo; from time to time seeing Philander who, smugly convinced she still loves him, gives her money when he can; keeping Brilliard (“…she knew she could make him her slave, her pimp, her anything…”) on a string; and most incredibly of all, taking money from the still besotted Octavio, under promises of reformation and a retired, decent life – and successfully keeping all four balls in the air at once.

It is impossible to read Sylvia’s story and not feel how it influenced Daniel Defoe; but whereas Defoe’s anti-heroines tell their tales from a late-life vantage point of reformation (however unconvincing), Behn saw no need to reform Sylvia. On the contrary: Sylvia’s “reward” at the end of her journey is the profitable ability to keep her emotions in check, and to use and discard other people to her own advantage; in short, to behave like a man. It is a peculiar and disturbing triumph, but a triumph nevertheless. In a world where it is destroy or be destroyed, we know that Sylvia will survive. Our last glimpse of her in the novel is her enforced departure from Brussels, Brilliard in her train and the wreck of Alonzo in her wake: “…of whom they made so considerable advantages, that in a short time they ruined the fortune of that young nobleman and became the talk of the town; insomuch that the Governor not permitting their stay there, she was forced to remove for new prey; and daily makes considerable conquests wherever she shows the charmer…”

And now to Philander…and Cesario.

The last thing I want here (or, I’m sure, you want) is to get lost in a lengthy retelling of the Monmouth Rebellion. So I’ll try to keep this brief, touching only upon the main points, and those moments where our old friend Lord Grey comes to prominence.

After years of vacillation and plots that came to nothing, Monmouth was finally brought to the point of rebellion by the combined efforts of Grey and Robert Ferguson, “the Plotter”. Ferguson was a former Presbyterian minister who was active in pamphleteering and conspiracy all the way through the years of the Exclusion Crisis and, like Grey and Monmouth, implicated in the Rye House Plot. It was Ferguson who drafted Monmouth’s “manifesto”, the document that spelled out the grounds upon which Monmouth rebelled against James, which instead of focusing upon “acceptable” grounds of rebellion such as defence of Protestantism, accused James of every crime imaginable, including murdering his brother. It was probably this document as much as the rebellion itself that sealed Monmouth’s fate.

Monouth and his army landed in Dorset, a Protestant stronghold, and at first many among the local population did flock to him enthusiastically; but an extended period of  fruitless marching and manoeuvring saw the spirits of most begin to evaporate. The failure of a planned simultaneous rebellion in Scotland led by the Earl of Argyle was a severe blow. Indeed, Monmouth was at this point willing to call the whole thing off, and tried to slip away from his forces. He might have done so had he not been dissuaded by a passionate speech from Lord Grey, who convinced him that, “To leave the army now would be an act so base that it would never be forgiven by the people.”

Grey, by necessity, had been put in charge of Monmouth’s cavalry – an arrangement on which some historians place much of the blame for the failure of the rebellion. The cavalry was twice completely routed by James’s forces, once literally turning tail and fleeing the battle, leaving Monmouth and the infantry unsupported. While our view of Grey’s conduct is now inevitably coloured by our knowledge of the outcome of his story, whether this was really cowardice or incompetence, as is often asserted, or whether Grey simply wasn’t qualified for the job, it is impossible to say. Only the damage done to Monmouth’s cause is indisputable.

The Monmouth Rebellion ended at the Battle of Sedgemoor on the 6th of July. Around a thousand men were killed, most of them Monmouth’s, but the leaders of the rebellion survived. Robert Ferguson got away and escaped to Holland, but both Grey and Monmouth were captured. The latter, who had fled the battlefield, was discovered hiding in a ditch disguised as a shepherd. As soon as Monmouth found himself in enemy hands, he went to pieces. Grey, however, remained calm and composed. Possibly he was one of those who are at their best when things are at their worst. Or, possibly, he knew something…

Brought before James, Monmouth literally grovelled, sobbing and pleading for his life, and throwing the blame onto everyone else. He was soon brought to understand he wasn’t facing his soft-hearted father any more: James was inflexible and vengeful even under normal circumstances, and these were not exactly normal circumstances. In his last extemity, Monmouth – defender of the Protestant faith – promised to convert to Catholicism if James would spare his life. James met him halfway – which is to say, he offered to facilitate Monmouth’s conversion. Knowing himself doomed, Monmouth managed to pull himself together. He was comparatively calm during his final moments, making neither the defiant speech James feared, nor the public apology James wanted. “I come to die, not to talk,” was all he said; final words variously reported as stoic or sullen.

Indeed, Monmouth’s last thoughts and last words were not of his ambitions, or his rebellion, but of his mistress, Lady Henrietta Wentworth, who he had loved for many years, and whose personal fortune paid for most of Monmouth’s activities. At the last, he handed a gold toothpick-case to one of the witnesses, begging him to give it back to Lady Henrietta, before submitting to his execution – which was, by the way, nightmarishly botched. Legend has it that James made sure the axe was blunt…

Aphra Behn’s account of the rebellion runs in parallel with the ongoing story of Philander and Sylvia throughout the third volume of her novel. She also introduces a new character, Count Tomaso, who is one of the prime movers in the rebellion…and in whom we may recognise the Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury, of course, died in 1683, two years before James’s succession, and so played no part in the real story of Monmouth’s rebellion. However, aside from his role during the Exclusion Crisis, Shaftesbury did spend the final year of his life trying to argue, provoke and cajole Monmouth into revolt against Charles, so Behn’s resurrection of him in her novel isn’t as gratuitous or as spiteful as it might at first appear. (In case anyone was in doubt about Tomaso’s identity, Behn makes use of a piece of embarrassing gossip about Shaftesbury that was popular with his enemies, and has Tomaso avoiding arrest by scrambling naked up onto the canopy of his mistress’s bed and hiding there.)

Shaftesbury, as we may recall, was one of the five ministers forced by Charles to sign the Treaty of Dover. Those five became subsequently known as “the Cabal”, a word constructed from the first initials of their names or titles (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley-Cooper, Lauderdale), with the acronym subsequently entering the vernacular with its current meaning of a secret gathering, or a sinister conspiracy. As with the word “philander”, it was Aphra Behn who popularised the term, via her repeated use of it in her novel to signify the underhanded nature of Cesario’s doings. Cesario and his followers do not  meet to discuss things, they “cabal”; they are “caballists”, who are always “caballing”. The word is used from time to time prior to this point, although always with connection with Cesario; but with the arrival in the story of Tomaso, its use in the novel becomes almost obsessive.

But Tomaso is only a supporting character in Behn’s account of the events of 1685. Her focus is upon Monmouth / Cesario, who she turns into a figure of ridicule, entirely under the control of Robert Ferguson / Fergusano and Lady Henrietta / Hermione, the latter of whom dreams of being queen of “France”. Monmouth was known to be deeply superstitious; when he was caught, he was carrying a notebook full of supposed charms for warding off death in battle and opening prison doors. What’s more, Monmouth’s devotion to his Henrietta, a woman condemned in her day for being “old and ugly” (that is, she was twenty-five and no beauty), was often attributed to his being literally bewitched. The gold toothpick-case, given by Henrietta to Monmouth and which occupied the last thoughts of his life, was supposed to hold the charm by which she controlled him.

Behn, of course, has a field day with all this. Playing on Monmouth’s apparent belief in magic, she casts Robert Ferguson as a literal magician, a master of the dark arts, whose hold over Cesario rests largely on his mysterious powers; as if Monmouth’s rebellion against James could only be explained in terms of black magic. She also makes much of the toothpick-case, having Hermione keep in it a love-philtre received from Fergusano to use against Cesario. Cesario himself emerges as a fool, a buffoon, a puppet – until the moment of his death, when Behn backs off. She doesn’t reference the horrors of Monmouth’s execution, but neither does she ridicule him further; she allows Cesario to die with dignity, even to be mourned. She retreats even further when describing the fate of “Hermione”. Henrietta Wentworth herself died not long after Monmouth. Most commentators greeted the event with sneers and bad jokes; Behn, almost alone, is quite kind with her memory. Perhaps she was startled, even awed, to find that someone actually could “die of love”.

And where, in all this, is Philander? Not where you might expect. Lord Grey’s conduct during the rebellion and afterwards remains a matter for debate. I myself turned for guidance on this point to my dear friend Thomas Macaulay – who I find I prefer as a literary critic than as an historian; the political bias is just a bit too obvious. Macaulay, a staunch Whig, spends much of his detailed and otherwise very interesting account of the rebellion making excuses for Grey.

And oddly, by the end of her novel, Aphra Behn is also making excuses for “Philander”. Politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows. But while Macaulay defended Grey as a Whig, Behn did so for quite opposite reasons. In her view, the rebellion was so entirely wrong and immoral that to desert it for any reason, at any time and under any circumstances, was the right thing to do – even if it meant behaving in a way that by normal standards was disgraceful and cowardly.

As the likelihood of open rebellion grows, so do Philander’s doubts. He confesses to Sylvia his fervent wish he’d never gotten involved, or that he could see a way out. He even speaks publicly against the venture, much to Cesario’s displeasure, and although he finally takes his place on the battlefield, his reluctance is apparent:

“Some Authors in the relation of this Battle affirm, That Philander quitted his Post as soon as the Charge was given, and sheer’d off from that Wing he commanded… He disliked the Cause, disapproved of all their Pretensions, and look’d upon the whole Affair and Proceedings to be most unjust and ungenerous; And all the fault his greatest Enemies could charge him with, was, That he did not deal so gratefully with a Prince that loved him and trusted him…”

Behn’s own discomfort here is evident, even as she tries to whitewash Philander; note the involuntary flicker of sympathy for Cesario, otherwise her whipping-boy. She does succeed somewhat in painting the impossible position of a man who no longer believes in his own cause. The problem is, we know Philander never did believe in the cause; that he was out for himself from the start, using Cesario, whom he despised, to further his own ends. Consequently, his belated moral qualms provoke, not understanding, but a curl of the lip.

In reality, debate about Lord Grey has centred on whether he was incompetent, or a coward – or whether, as Behn almost unconsciously (or even unavoidably) suggests, he was in fact a Quisling within Monmouth’s ranks all along. Whatever the truth, in the end Lord Grey did what Lord Grey always did: he found a way to wriggle out of a tight situation.

Brought before James, Grey was composed. In the wake of Monmouth’s embarrassing self-debasement, his behaviour probably looked more heroic than it was. However, nothing he did from that point on can be remotely classified as “heroic”.

First, he penned a long, rambling, self-exculpatory confession, throwing all the blame of the rebellion onto Ferguson and Shaftesbury, playing down his own influence over Monmouth as much as possible, and painting himself as a poor, lonely, friendless exile from England, who in his desperation fell into bad company, and was led into bad ways. (Not surprisingly, the reason Grey was an exile in the first place isn’t mentioned – and nor, for that matter, is Henrietta Berkeley.) Second, he ratted out his friends, providing voluntary testimony against many others captured after Sedgemoor, many of whom were condemned and executed. And last – yet hardly, one imagines, least – he paid a “fine” of forty thousand pounds into the always ravenous royal coffers.

And on the strength of these three gestures, while others only a fraction as guilty as he, men and women, aristocrat and commoner, were being sentenced to death, Lord Grey was forgiven; and not just forgiven, but eventually welcomed back at court.

There is a limit to everything – even to Aphra Behn’s inclination to make excuses for a man swearing new loyalty to James. When Behn picked up her pen in 1684 to begin what would eventually become Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, not in her very wildest imaginings could she have invented a conclusion to her story such as reality provided. Nevertheless, being given such an opportunity, she made the most of it. This most improbable denouement to a most improbable sequence of events allowed Aphra Behn to write one of English literature’s great closing paragraphs, an ending to her story none the less viciously satirical for being absolutely true:

“Philander lay sometime in the Bastille, visited by all the Persons of great Quality about the Court; he behaved himself very Gallantly all the way he came, after his being taken, and to the last Minute of his Imprisonment; and was at last pardon’d, kiss’d the King’s Hand, and came to Court in as much Splendour as ever, being very well understood by all good Men.”

After a decade of persistent and increasing ill-health, Aphra Behn died at the age of forty-nine on the 16th of April, 1689 – five days after the coronation of William and Mary. Although we must mourn her loss at such a relatively young age, it does seem somehow fitting that this woman so distinctly, so uniquely of the Restoration should not have outlived the age that created her. Then, too, perhaps it’s just as well that she didn’t live to see the “real” end to her novel.

In June of 1688, a group of English noblemen, subsequently dubbed “the Immortal Seven”, sent a formal invitation to William of Orange, requesting his intervention in the English succession: the initial plan was to force James to disinherit his new-born son in favour of his daughter, Mary, William’s wife. It was November when William landed with his army, but his plans to do so had been known for at least two months, forcing not only James to decide upon a course of action, but also the dwindling numbers of statesmen who still publicly supported him – like Lord Grey.

It will come, I am sure, as no great surprise to anyone who has followed this story so far to hear that Grey’s choice was to betray the king to whom he owed his life, and to whom he swore oaths of fidelity after being received at court. His first thought as always his own skin, he abandoned James for William at the first opportunity.

And, sad to say, Grey did not merely survive under William: he thrived. Becoming a fixture at court, he was made Privy Councillor in 1695, the same year he was created Viscount Glendale and Earl of Tankerville. He subsequently served as First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Privy Seal and (in perhaps the sickest irony of all) Lord Justice of the Realm. The successful statesman died in 1701…remaining to the end, no doubt, well understood by all good men.

21/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 3)

“Let us, oh let us, my brother, sit down here, and pursue the crime of loving on no farther. Call me sister—swear I am so, and nothing but your sister: and forbear, oh forbear, my charming brother, to pursue me farther with your soft bewitching passion; let me alone, let me be ruin’d with honour, if I must be ruin’d.—For oh! ’twere much happier I were no more, than that I should be more than Philander’s sister; or he than Sylvia’s brother: oh let me ever call you by that cold name, ’till that of lover be forgotten.”

On top of publishing anonymously and resorting to the roman à clef format, the opening of Love-Letters Between A Noble-Man And His Sister finds Aphra Behn providing for herself a third layer of protection against the possible consequences of her tale of sex and politics: the age-old pretence of the “found manuscript”. The volume’s preface asserts that the letters were discovered, “…in their cabinets, at their house at St Denis, where they both lived together, for the space of a year; and they are as exactly as possible placed in the order they were sent.”

The preface also spells out for us the nature of the roman à clef. The story is set during the Fronde, the French civil war that took place in the middle of the Franco-Spanish War of 1635 – 1659. The Fronde had two phases, and it is the second, the Fronde des nobles, with which we are concerned: “The time of the rebellion of the true Protestant Huguenot in Paris, under the conduct of the Prince of Condé (whom we will call Cesario)…”

The preface then goes on to give us a sketch of one of Cesario’s followers, a young man given the sobriquet Philander, who achieved notoriety by eloping with Sylvia, the sister of his wife, Myrtilla. In this version of events, Myrtilla is not only Cesario’s mistress, but was in love with him at the time she married Philander, which she did purely for interest’s sake. We hear of Philander’s pursuit of Sylvia, their affair, its discovery and their flight. We hear also that, as a consequence of his involvement with Cesario, Philander was one of the rebels defeated by the king’s forces; that he was imprisoned, but escaped; and that he then fled the country in Sylvia’s company.

It is unlikely that anyone in England reading this far could fail to guess the true identities of the major players of this tale. Whether they believed that the letters were actually real is debatable, but either way, they could be certain that a scandalous story was to follow.

A word about the names here. All of the characters are given pastoral pseudonyms in place of their “real” (that is, fictional) names, which was a common practice at the time in both literature and literary circles, a hangover from the days of the classical romance. These days we might be inclined to snicker at our anti-hero’s name – what, we’re supposed to be surprised that someone called “Philander” behaves like this? – but in fact, it is because of the success of this tale that the word “philander” took on its modern meaning, “to behave like Philander” eventually becoming simply “to philander”. And there is a second word in this book that Aphra Behn, not invented, but helped to entrench in common parlance; but we’ll deal with that later on.

When the story opens, Philander and Sylvia have admitted their feelings for one another, and immediately, we see how skilfully Aphra Behn builds upon her model, the Lettres Portugueses. In place of the single voice, here we have two; and the reader is invited to decode the language of each to get at the motives beyond. Sylvia is understandably torn, her passionate desire for Philander at odds with her fear of discovery, the thought of her lost honour, the shame that she would bring upon her parents should the affair be discovered, and above all her consciousness that she would be betraying her own sister. Meanwhile, despite the increasing extravagence of Philander’s language, the reader is able to see what the inexperienced Sylvia cannot, the selfish single-mindedness of his passion. She vacillates, thinking of others; he relentlessly pursues his aim.

To contemporary readers, the language of Love Letters is frequently overripe and hard to swallow; but it is important to realise that it is an accurate reflection of its time, when verbal flamboyance was commonly used to disguise brutal reality, like putting a clean dress on a dirty body. So it is throughout this book, as it becomes dismayingly apparent that for all the pleading and the protestation, all the agonies and desperation, all the languishing and dying, there is nothing in this story that we might in modern usage call “love”; not a moment when it is ever about anything other than sex. And the more apparent that becomes, the less willing are the characters to admit it – and the more excessive becomes the language.

Furthermore, increasingly over the length of the story, there is a tendency to parallel the relations between man and woman with warfare: by the end, the phrase “the battle of the sexes” is barely even a metaphor. This is, undoubtedly, Aphra Behn’s own view of her world; and to a large extent the subsequent volumes of Love Letters are questioning whether in such a world it is ever possible that the woman might be victorious, or whether she must inevitably be conquered…and then ransacked and abandoned. Anything other than defeat for one party or the other is, however, quite out the question: it is destroy or be destroyed.

Language, then, is not so much a means of communication as on one hand a weapon, on the other a form of disguise. Philander, clearly, has already learned the power of the word before he turns his batteries upon Sylvia. In their exchange of letters, her language grows more and more like his, more heated, more exaggerated: words become a substitute for sex. Increasingly, Sylvia uses in her letters the words “brother” and “sister”, ostensibly to kill their mutual passion, in fact because the forbidden nature of the relationship adds to its fire. Consciously or unconsciously, Sylvia has absorbed Philander’s lesson: how to use language to conceal an ugly truth.

Having established the nature of her characters’ passion, it is then time for Aphra Behn to move onto politics. We must remember that the story’s “rebellion of the Hugenots” is a cover for the events leading up to the Rye House Plot. As in reality, Philander and Sylvia are on opposite sides of the political divide. Sylvia’s family is loyal to the throne, while Philander has thrown in his lot with Cesario in his intended revolt against his father, the king. It is Sylvia who broaches the subject in their letters, first uttering the standard female grievance that while she thinks of nothing but him, she knows that for all his protestations, Philander often has things other than love on his mind. From an early warning about the danger to his life if he persists in following Cesario, she initiates a frank political debate, demanding to know on what grounds the rebels are taking action?—

“What is it, oh my charming brother then, that you set up for? Is it glory? Oh mistaken, lovely youth, that glory is but a glittering light, that flashes for a moment, and then disappears; it is a false bravery, that will bring an eternal blemish upon your honest fame and house; render your honourable name hated, detested and abominable in story to after ages; a traitor!”

Like Aphra Behn, Sylvia is a royalist; and like Behn again, there is an oddly sexual aspect to her devotion to her monarch: “I swear to you, Philander, I never approach his sacred person, but my heart beats, my blood runs cold about me, and my eyes overflow with tears of joy, while an awful confusion seizes me all over.”

However, Behn’s insistence upon the physical glamour of the Stuarts is far easier to take than her subsequent attempt forcibly to remodel Charles to fit the royalist vision of what a divinely-annointed monarch should be. In the literature of the time, we’ve seen any number of hilariously inaccurate descriptions of Charles by Tory writers, and Aphra Behn’s is among the most extreme; and when you consider that she probably had James as much as Charles in her mind when she wrote it, it becomes even more ludicrous:

“What has the King, our good, our gracious monarch, done to Philander?… But all his life has been one continued miracle; all good, all gracious, calm and merciful: and this good, this god-like King… His eyes have something so fierce, so majestic, commanding, and yet so good and merciful, as would soften rebellion itself into repenting loyalty… Oh! what pity it is, unhappy young man, thy education was not near the King!”

Sylvia here launches into a lengthy reproof of Philander’s intentions, and indeed his political principles – or the lack thereof. She should have heeded her own words: from the Tory perspective, as a man was in his politics, so he was in his personal life. Philander’s willingness to betray his king should have been a clear warning to Sylvia that he was not otherwise to be trusted. Sylvia’s speech here hits all the major heads of Tory attacks upon the Whigs: that their protests against “absolutism” and their claim to be acting “for the good of the people” were nothing more than a shoddy excuse for their own selfish actions; that their motives were pure self-interest and the hope of self-aggrandisement; that to oppose the will of the king was to be guilty of treason.

In all this, Philander is the very model of a Whig, particularly in his willingness to align himself with Cesario in spite of being cuckolded by him: to a Whig, we understand, lost honour is a minor consideration beside the opportunity for personal advancement. Philander admits openly that he has no respect for Cesario, and indeed, nothing but scorn for “the rabble”, in whose name he is supposed to be acting; and that it is entirely of himself that he is thinking. In doing so, he highlights one of the major debating points of the day: if it were possible to interfere with the natural line of succession (as the Whigs tried to do during the Exclusion Crisis); if it was acceptable to substitute one king for another, to, in effect, elect a king; if being king was not a matter of Divine Will, but of the strongest arm— When no man had a right to be king, then any man had the right to be king. It was the Tories’ worst nightmare.

And this is exactly Philander’s intention. He is merely using Cesario to jockey himself into a position of power. However dangerous the rebellion, however slim the chances of victory, if the rebels do prevail, why should not Philander be king?—“When three kingdoms shall lie unpossess’d…who knows but the chance may be mine… If the strongest sword must do it, (as that must do it) why not mine still? Why may not mine be that fortunate one? Cesario has no more right to it than Philander…”

Aphra Behn’s presentation of the Duke of Monmouth in this story, in the guise of Cesario, is marked by a venomous contempt for his ambition, his ingratitude to his father (and uncle) and above all his stupidity. At the same time, there is a certain disingenuity about Behn’s telling of the story, inasmuch as the religious division at the root of the crisis goes unacknowledged: the rebellion here is unmotivated by anything but greed. However, she is right in her assertion that while Monmouth supposedly had “followers” in his attempt to dislodge the Duke of York from the succession, what he really had were users: that he was never anything more to the Exclusionists than a means to an end.

Piling on the abuse, Behn first lets Sylvia loose upon the character of Cesario: here is Monmouth as seen by the Tories, his attraction for the Exclusionists laid bare—

“What is it bewitches you so? Is it his beauty? Then Philander has a greater title than Cesario; and not one other merit has he, since in piety, chastity, sobriety, charity and honour, he as little excels, as in gratitude, obedience and loyalty. What then, my dear Philander? Is it his weakness? Ah, there’s the argument you all propose, and think to govern so soft a king: but believe me, oh unhappy Philander! Nothing is more ungovernable than a fool; nothing more obstinate, wilful, conceited, and cunning…”

Not only does Philander not dispute this summation, he has a worse opinion of Cesario than Sylvia; and if this is how his “followers” feel, how must the rest of the country despise him?—

“They use him for a tool to work with, he being the only great man that wants sense enough to find out the cheat which they dare impose upon. Can any body of reason believe, if they had design’d him good, they would let him bare-fac’d have own’d a party so opposite to all laws of nature, religion, humanity, and common gratitude?… The world knows Cesario renders himself the worst of criminals by it, and has abandon’d an interest more glorious and easy than empire, to side with and aid people that never did, or ever can oblige him; and he is so dull as to imagine that for his sake, who never did us service or good, (unless cuckolding us be good) we should venture life and fame to pull down a true monarch, to set up his bastard over us.”

This political debate is merely an interlude, however, and soon Philander is ramping up his attempt to manoeuvre himself into Sylvia’s bed, using the fact that he has confided his secret, and therefore his life, to her as a measure of his love. At this point, Sylvia’s own desire is almost beyond restraint, except that she is haunted by the thought of her sister: “Myrtilla, my sister, and Philander’s wife? Oh God! that cruel thought will put me into ravings…”

These exclamations form part of one of the story’s most remarkable letters, in which Sylvia’s attempt to wean herself from her passion by harping on the marriage evolves into a tirade against the sister who is unable to appreciate what she has, which in turn becomes an erotic fantasy in which Sylvia dwells upon Philander’s physical perfections – only to conclude abruptly with the bitter realisation that Philander did not marry Myrtilla under compulsion, or for money or position, but for love.

Sylvia then tears up the letter…but Philander receives it anyway, delivered in pieces by Sylvia’s maid and confidante, Melinda, who brings also a warning that Syvia’s mother has begun to entertain suspicions, on account of her daughter’s behaviour. Nevertheless, another letter arrives for Philander: a letter of surrender—

“My heart beats still, and heaves with the sensible remains of the late dangerous tempest of my mind, and nothing can absolutely calm me but the approach of the all-powerful Philander… Bring me then that kind cessation, bring me my Philander, and set me above the thoughts of cares, frights, or any other thoughts but those of tender love; haste then, thou charming object of my eternal wishes, and of my new desires; haste to my arms, my eyes, my soul,—but oh, be wondrous careful there, do not betray the easy maid that trusts thee amidst all her sacred store…”

[To be continued…]

13/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 1)

“The play had no other Misfortune but that of coming out for a Womans: had it been owned by a Man, though the most Dull Unthinking Rascally Scribler in Town, it had been a most admirable Play. Nor does it’s loss of Fame with the Ladies do it much hurt, though they ought to have had good Nature and justice enough to have attributed all its faults to the authours unhappiness, who is forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.”
— Aphra Behn (1678)

“There are strong marks of Genius in all this lady’s works, but unhappily, there are some parts of them, very improper to be read by, or recommended to virtuous minds, and especially to youth. She wrote in an age, and to a court of licentious manners, and perhaps we ought to ascribe to those causes the loose turn of her stories. Let us do justice to her merits, and cast the veil of compassion over her faults.”
— Clara Reeve (1785)

“Mrs Behn wrote foully; and this for most of us, and very properly, is an end of the whole discussion.”
— William Henry Hudson (1867)

“We cannot but admire the courage of this lonely woman who, poor and friendless, was the first in England to turn to the pen for her livelihood, and not only won herself bread but no mean position in the world of her day and English literature of all time.”
— Montague Summers (1915)

“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn…for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
— Virginia Woolf (1928)

“Without a knowledge of Aphra Behn’s work our conception of English literary history is incomplete. Her place can’t be filled by anyone else. There remains quite simply a gap and, without Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister in particular, we are led to suppose that the eighteenth-century novel sprang unmothered from the thigh of Robinson Crusoe.”
— Maureen Duffy (1986)

There are, of course, any number of quotes I could have used to illustrate the changing fortunes of Aphra Behn, but these for one reason or another caught my eye. Clara Reeve encapsulates for us the growing divide between Behn’s writing and her reputation, while speaking late in the 19th century, William Henry Hudson gives us Behn at her nadir, her writing so “foul” neither it nor she warrants discussion. It was Montague Summers via his study of Restoration drama who began to rehabilitate Behn’s reputation, but although he edited and reissued her works, he seems like Virginia Woolf to have been as interested in the woman as in the writer. Indeed, for Woolf, all that really mattered was Behn’s position as a professional female writer: what she wrote was far less important than the fact that she wrote at all.

Half a century later, Behn had become a powerful symbol for feminist academia, a rebuttal to the entrenched male-centric view of the evolution of the novel, with its mulish insistence upon Defoe or Richardson or Fielding as “the” father of the novel. (Maureen Duffy’s choice of the tart term “unmothered” speaks for itself.) Today, so charged is the idea of Aphra Behn that there is occasionally some difficulty in shifting the mounds of baggage to one side, in order look at her writing upon its own merits.

I stress, “shift”, not “dispose of”: we certainly do not want to lose sight of the historical importance of Aphra Behn, whose self-carved career was quite unique, and whose belated foray into fiction would prove enormously influential in the direction taken by subsequent English prose writers. Although Behn had few if any role models, she would be an inspiration for two succeeding generations of female writers, poets and novelists in particular; until the tightening morals of the 17th century made Behn and her followers personae non gratae; and even then, when she herself became almost literally unmentionable, Behn’s writing continued to exert its influence.

I don’t intend here to get into Aphra Behn’s biography: that job’s been done, and done well. Janet Todd’s comprehensive work was preceded by Maureen Duffy’s breakthrough 1977 study, The Passionate Shepherdess, and by Angeline Goreau’s Reconstructing Aphra, from 1980; while numerous other works discuss her life and works. Instead, we’ll be confining ourselves to the historical, social and literary forces that prompted Behn, a poet by choice and a playwright by need, to begin writing fiction.

When Charles II reopened the London theatres at the beginning of the Restoration, two dramatic companies divided the audience and the spoils: the King’s Company, which produced predominantly established plays; and the Duke’s company, which focused upon new works. Naturally, it was to the latter that Aphra Behn attached herself in the late 1660s. Her first play staged was The Forc’d Marriage, produced in 1670. From there, Behn had regular successes for over a decade – mixed with a few failures – while she also gained a reputation as a poet and expanded her circle of literary and artistic acquaintances. At the same time, the personal attacks upon her gained force and virulence, and Behn expended much energy in (largely justifiable) complaints that she was condemned for “immorality” for material that, had it been written by a man, would have passed without comment. Throughout her writing career, there was an ambivalence about Aphra Behn’s attitude to her own professional standing that showed itself in her need to prove that she could “mix it with the boys”, while remaining acutely sensitive to, and desiring recognition for, her position as a female writer.

Behn’s social origins are murky at best, but it does not seem that she could have been more than middle-class by birth, and was very likely less. Throughout her personal and professional life she exhibited royalist / Tory tendencies combined with a healthy contempt for “the mob”: a stance that probably reflected her simultaneous effort to distance herself from an unsatisfactory past while, in effect, writing herself into a new existence. It was certainly also part of an attempt to get a foot in the door at court. Behn never did quite manage this, although she became a friend and collaborator of the Earl of Rochester, and was much admired by John Dryden. She had no particular religious feeling; her adherence to monarchy had nothing “divine” about it; she believed, rather, in the desirability of a central authority. However, as with many royalists of the time, we imagine, Behn’s theories about monarchy had to survive the reality of Charles; particularly in the wake of her unhappy experiences as an agent for his government.

Behn’s most successful play was The Rover, first produced in 1677. It became a favourite not just with London audiences in general, but at court – and particularly with the Duke of York, who met with Behn after seeing it and praised her work. This encounter seems to have left Behn quite star-struck, and it is from this time that we can date her increased willingness to take a political stance in her writing. Two of Behn’s more successful plays from this period, 1681’s The Roundheads and 1682’s The City Heiress, support royalism and the legitimate monarchy, which as so often in the Tory works of this time is presented as ludicrously virtuous, while suggesting that interference with natural succession and other Whiggish notions will inevitably lead to disaster. The former went so far as to equate the Exclusionists with the rebels of the 1640s.

It is important to realise, however, that over the course of the turbulent decade following the “revelation” of the Popish Plot, and in particular through the events of the Exclusion Crisis, Behn’s primary loyalty was not to Charles, but to James. This explains her increasing hostility towards the Duke of Monmouth – which, however James might have felt about it, Charles certainly did not appreciate. Behn’s new political persona saw her invited to write the prologue and epilogue for a play called Romulus And Hersilia, and in the wake of the dismissal of the charges of high treason against the Earl of Shaftesbury, she let rip. Her prologue attacked the Whigs in general, while her epilogue focused on Monmouth. As a consequence, both Behn and the actress speaking the lines were arrested and asked to “show cause”. There were no further consequences, however, so presumably Charles meant nothing more than to give Behn a good dissuasive scare. It didn’t entirely work, as we shall see, but it did make her change her tactics.

This turn of events is often given as the reason Aphra Behn as good as stopped writing plays, but in fact the political situation that gave Behn her last dramatic successes was about to overwhelm her career. Audiences that had flocked to the theatre in the early Restoration to celebrate the depoliciticising of entertainment began to dwindle in the late 1670s as religious and political division again became rife. During this period, the King’s Company was also mismanaged; and in 1682, a decision was made to merge the King’s and the Duke’s into the single United Company, with the former management of the Duke’s in charge. Despite this, probably for pragmatic reasons, the new company adopted the King’s philosophy of staging predominantly classic and established plays. Very few new plays were commissioned, and a great many playwrights, Aphra Behn among them, were left with little prospect of being able to earn their living in that direction. As a fulltime professional, Behn had little choice but to look for alternative sources of revenue. The poetry she had always favoured was not very remunerative, and nor were translations, but she worked at both of these. Another possibility was fiction.

Behn was a reader as well as a writer, of European texts as well as English. She was familiar with the market and knew that, in fiction as in drama, sex sold. The apolitical plays she staged prior to The Roundheads had failed: people wanted political material. Yet political material could be dangerous, even if favouring the “right” side, as Behn had learned the hard way.

Behn’s literary solution to her dilemma was nothing short of a stroke of genius, one which drew heavily upon existing forms and texts yet created an identity all of its own. Published letters were an established genre even before the success of The Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun, which were translated into English in 1678. Whether real or fictional, these impassioned letters, focused upon the emotions of the writer to the exclusion of all else, were a literary revelation. Behn took her cue from them but went them one better, using letters to show both sides of an illicit love affair. In doing so she created a new form of fiction, the epistolary novel, which would dominate English prose writing throughout the 18th century.

But Behn didn’t stop there. Melded with the story told via letters, which provided the reader with plenty of sex, is a healthy dose of politics. In this, Behn resorted to the use of another established literary form, the roman à clef. In the 16th and much of the 17th century, this “disguised” form of writing was a means of examining great issues: of analysing, and criticising, nations, governments, peoples, mores; but as the 17th century wore on this form became increasingly a means of expressing a particular political viewpoint, or criticising a particular person – or exploiting a particular scandal – and of doing so more or less with impunity.

While many of these romans à clef strike us today as ludicrously transparent, as well as outrageous in content, there was apparently some kind of arrangement in place, at least a tacit one, that protected the booksellers and authors responsible for these works from legal repercussions, as long as all concerned adhered to the convention of pretending they were talking about “somewhere else”. During the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis in particular, as we have seen, in this way the most incredible accusations were thrown variously at the king and his court (and his brother), and at the enemies of the king and his court (and his brother), apparently without consequence.

And again, Aphra Behn took note. She was nervous about her new venture – which would finally be published anonymously, just in case – and the prospect of being somehow “protected” by employing a particular form of writing was naturally attractive. Behn’s work would eventually stretch to three volumes, of which only the first is in the classic epistolary form; but in its entirety, it is a roman à clef, the re-telling of a story that had scandalised the whole of England through the years 1682 – 1863, and which (no doubt to Behn’s eventual delight) would erupt again in 1685. As material for her first published attempt at prose, the story must have seemed to Behn almost too good to be true, offering illicit – and illegal – sex, outrageous doings amongst the aristocracy, and the opportunity to launch a scathing attack upon the enemies of the Stuart monarchy. Early in 1684, Aphra Behn published the first part of what is now widely regarded as the first true “modern” novel, Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister.

[To be continued…]

18/12/2010

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (Parts 3&4)

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (2003)  Director:  Joe Wright  Screenplay:  Adrian Hodges  Starring: Rufus Sewell, Rupert Graves, Martin Freeman, Charlie Creed-Miles, Shirley Henderson, Helen McCrory, Christian Coulson, Ian McDiarmid, Shaun Dingwall, Emma Pierson, Mélanie Thierry, David Bradley, Eddie Marsan, Diana Rigg, Tabitha Wady, Anne-Marie Duff, Thierry Perkins-Lyautey, Jochum ten Haaf, Alice Patten, Cyrille Thouvenin, Robert Kavanah, Simon Woods, Robert East, Dorian Lough, Rob Jarvis

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Part 3 of Charles II: The Power & The Passion opens in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, with the anti-Catholic rumblings that formed a background for much of the earlier drama coming to the fore: while there are some who see the fire as a judgement upon Charles and his court, far more are lending an ear to the story of the “Papist” who was seen running through Pudding Lane with a torch. As a weary Charles comments later, when people have lost everything, it’s no use trying to tell them it was just an accident. It is the end of any hope for religious tolerance, and he knows it.

In Versailles, Charles’s mother is dying. Her last words to her daughter, Henrietta Anne (Ann-Marie Duff), known as “Minette”, are of Charles: that he must be made to see how Louis XIV (Thierry Perkins-Lyautey) can help him, and that he must die a Catholic. Afterwards, Minette is approached by Louis, who is also her brother-in-law. He, too, speaks of Charles, in bitter reference to the Triple Alliance, England’s pact with Sweden and Holland. Minette argues that the pact was Parliament’s doing, not Charles’s, and Louis responds by ordering her to England, with an offer of his friendship – a very generous friendship – should he convert to Catholicism.

There are only the vaguest allusions here, mostly through the mutterings of the eternally sneering Buckingham, to the rumours that Minette and Louis were lovers (some claim he was the real father of her eldest child), but it does make her husband, the Duc D’Orleans (Cyrille Thouvenin), known as “Monsieur”, not only openly homosexual but violently abusive.

Back in England, Charles has things other than religion on his mind. Well, not his mind, exactly: a young actress called Nell Gwynn (Emma Pierson) has caught his attention, which is just too bad for Barbara Villiers, whose star begins to fade as Nell’s rises, and whose latest baby is disclaimed by its putative father. Barbara’s spiralling debauchery and extravagance have Charles’s ministers and followers baying for her blood, although her final eviction does not come until Charles catches her in bed with a young John Churchill (Simon Woods). The series chooses a slightly more dignified encounter with Charles for the future Duke of Marlborough than history usually allows, which generally has him either hiding from his king in a cupboard, or jumping out of the window to avoid him. This version has him admitting he took money from an “insistent” Barbara in exchange for his services. (Come to think of it, is that more dignified?)

Meanwhile, Nell is going from strength to strength: Charles buys her a house, Sir Peter Lely paints her portrait, and as she lolls about in the company of Charles, Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester (Robert Cavanah), the latter composes his famous (and much re-written) epigram on Charles, who gives his equally famous retort.

In the face of Charles’s general intransigence, Parliament begins to tighten the financial screws on him, meaning that when Minette makes her visit, she finds her brother in a receptive mood. Charles’s ministers look on apprehensively, interpreting this “family visit”, this “visit for her health”, quite correctly. When the terms of Louis’ cash offer to Charles are made known – to recognise his sovereignty over the Netherlands, to support him against the Dutch, to declare war against the Dutch themselves, as soon as an excuse is found – the ministers, Shaftesbury in particular, are outraged, demanding to know what Parliament will think of Charles taking French money to rule alone?

Charles responds coolly that Parliament will know nothing of the situation, because no-one in the room will speak of it – and what’s more, each of his ministers will sign his name to the treaty. Slowly, with shame and reluctance, they do. It is Shaftesbury who hesitates the longest, but in the end even he does as he is told. Buckingham, meanwhile, is disturbed and angry at the realisation that Charles trusted the Earl of Danby (Shaun Dingwall) with his decision, rather than himself, and begins his drift towards opposition.

But Shaftesbury & Co. don’t know the half of it. In a private meeting, Charles and Minette discuss the other part of Louis’ offer: enough money to rule without Parliament, in exchange for Charles’s conversion to Catholicism. In one of his ugliest manoeuvres, Charles does not sign the secret treaty himself, but maintains plausible deniability by compelling his two Catholic ministers, Lord Arlington (Robert East) and Sir Thomas Clifford (Dorian Lough) to sign it instead. It is only Minette who dares voice the truth of the situation: that Charles has no intention of converting, but every intention of taking Louis’ money.

Minette’s visit to England may not have been for her health, as contended, but she is ill – for the simple reason that she is being poisoned. She dies shortly after her return to France. Although the official verdict on Minette’s sudden death was peritonitis, there has always been a strong belief that she was murdered, probably by her husband. This is how her death is presented here, with perhaps just a faint underlying  implication that, having served her purpose in getting the treaties signed, she is then disposed of.

Minette’s lady-in-waiting during her visit to England was the young and beautiful Louise de Kéroualle (Mélanie Thierry), who instantly caught Charles’s eye – although with Minette guarding her, nothing happened. Now, Louise is recruited by Louis and given the mission of returning to England, where she will share Charles’s bed (share being the operative word, I guess) and act as Louis’s spy. The carrot dangled is the prospect of Catherine’s premature death and Charles’s subsequent need for a new queen…although as it turned out, Catherine not surprisingly outlived her profligate husband by some twenty years. Louise is soon revealed as a very clumsy spy, and Charles isn’t fooled for a moment – but what the hey, he sleeps with her anyway.

And the visitors just keep coming, as Charles affectionately embraces his nephew, William of Orange (Jochum ten Haaf). William himself is less kindly intentioned, accusing Charles openly of being either bribed or tricked by Louis, and on that basis declaring war on the Dutch. Assuming that William has come to make terms, Charles turns the other cheek to this, but he is soon disabused. Declaring that Holland has not surrendered and will not surrender, William adds that if England wants to offer terms, he will listen; that England cannot afford to fight indefinitely; that, after all, it is only a matter of time before Parliament cuts Charles’s supply. “When you are ready to talk sensibly, you will not find me unreasonable,” he says calmly. As William bows himself out, Charles gives a half-smile, obviously impressed with his nephew’s cojones – and, perhaps, his grasp of English politics.

The Duchess of York dies, and almost before her body is cold, James announces to Charles his intention of marrying Mary of Modena. Charles begins with dissuasion and progresses to forbidding the match – and is ignored. Here, for the first time, is mooted the possibility of James’s exclusion from the line of succession. A meeting of Charles and James with the ministry rapidly turns violent, with accusations of loyalty to the Pope on one hand provoking an explosion against the bastard usurper, Elizabeth from James. “The sooner the country should be brought back to the path of righteousness, the better for us all!”

And that, of course, is that. As Charles closes his eyes in silent pain and Buckingham drops his head into his hands, the battle-lines are drawn. The Protestant ministers insist upon the Test Act being enforced, the first consequence of which is the resignation of Arlington. Soon afterwards, Buckingham makes his way to a certain coffee-house, where he meets with Shaftesbury. Buckingham begins by protesting that he is Charles’s friend and loyal subject, but soon learns that it is he who has been betrayed, when Shaftesbury reveals what he has discovered about the second secret treaty: “One which bound King Charles to take the Catholic faith, in exchange for French gold and a Papist army to suppress his own people.” As Buckingham chews this over, Shaftesbury proposes two possible courses of action: Charles can divorce Catherine and re-marry; or if not, well, he already has a Protestant son…

So we stand at the conclusion of Part 3 of this series, which is, as we have seen, crammed with incident and quite compelling. Part 4, however, is—well, actually, I can tell you exactly what’s wrong with Part 4. This series came to me as a two-disc set, with the first three episodes on Disc 1. When I put in Disc 2, I expected there to be another three episodes. There was one.

It’s only a personal irony, of course, but given that it was the events of the following years, the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, that led me to watch this series in the first place, I couldn’t help feeling rather let down that it was exactly those events, of all things, that it chose to skimp on. Even the bloodbath brought on by the Popish Plot is skimped! And yes, I suppose the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis did consist predominantly of a great deal of arguing in the House of Commons, and of pamphlets in the bookstores, rather than anything “dramatic” – but really, this whole episode feels rushed and unsatisfying, particularly in the way in which it concludes.

The other striking thing about this episode is that, having kept a fair balance to this point, from here it increasingly asks the viewer to sympathise with Charles. It emphasises his growing isolation, both emotionally and politically (irony of ironies, he really only has Catherine to rely on – in both capacities), and the ultimate futility of his determination to hold on to the crown and the succession. On the back of his various mistakes, stupidities and duplicities, the sudden emergence towards the end of an all-wise and all-seeing Charles (even though it is only for the sake of dramatic convenience) is particularly discomforting. So too is the tone of the final parliamentary scene, when Charles confronts his enemies in full monarchical regalia: Ooh, look, isn’t he handsome in his robes and crown? He must be right after all!

We open in the earliest days of the Popish Plot, with Christopher Kirkby (Rob Jarvis) bringing the “found” written proof of the conspiracy to Lord Danby, and accusing the Jesuits in general, and Sir George Wakeman, Catherine’s physician, in particular, of plotting to assassinate Charles. He tells Danby that he got the papers from one Israel Tonge, who in turn received them from a man called Titus Oates (Eddie Marsan). These two are summoned to Whitehall, where Oates insists that the Pope and Louis XIV are behind the conspiracy, and that Catherine and James are both privy to it. This is enough to bring Charles, who has been listening secretly to the interrogation, into the room, where he demands the names of the Catholic conspirators. After only a slight hesitation, Oates names all of England’s most prominent Catholic noblemen, along with Sir George Wakeman and Edward Coleman, Mary of Modena’s secretary.

Having listened to all this with an unconcealed scepticism amounting almost to amusement, Charles fastens upon Oates’ insistence that he originally became aware of the plot by overhearing details of it within the queen’s household during one of his visits to the palace on business. Reasoning that Oates must, therefore, know his way around Whitehall very well, Charles asks him to lead the way to the spot where he overheard the plot – a test that ends with an embarrassing encounter with the Royal Water Closet. For Charles, this says it all.

Now, oddly enough, we get the one point in this episode in which it is profoundly unjust to Charles, and where I am prepared to defend him. We can criticise him for many, many things, but he certainly did not just turn his back upon events at this juncture and leave Parliament to “deal with it”, and expect it to be done – while he, mind you, went off to the races! On the contrary, Charles tried repeatedly to expose the plot as false and prevent the rush of events, but was out-manoeuvred and finally backed into a corner by a Parliament that had no intention of letting such an opportunity slip, no matter how much innocent blood might be spilled as a result. Here, we get a crude shorthand of these events when Buckingham beats the real story out of Oates – that the plot was his revenge upon the Catholics for his expulsion from a Jesuit seminary under accusations of attempted sodomy – and then warns him to keep his mouth shut, or else. Before long, “the truth” is all over England.

Strangely, the extent of the Catholic massacre is very much played down here, with only the executions of Edward Coleman and, eventually, that of  Viscount Stafford, one of the Catholic nobles, foregrounded. These events prompt Charles to send a seething and mistrustful James into exile, so that “the people’s grievance” may be kept out of their sight for a while. Meanwhile, Shaftesbury’s health is failing, and with his time running out, he ups the ante and begins taking dangerous action against Charles.

First, he and Buckingham lure Monmouth into their own plots with the prospect of the crown. (These scenes make it very clear that Monmouth’s attraction for Parliament lie as much in his vanity and weakness, which make him easy to manipulate, as in his Protestantism.) Shaftesbury then reveals to Parliament copies of letters written by Lord Danby, which make reference to the secret treaty with France, and introduces the Exclusion Bill. All this leads to another scene of Charles averting his eyes from his most loyal supporter, in this case Danby, and then throwing him to the wolves…

…but he does save Danby’s life, when Shaftesbury and Buckingham are clamouring for his execution; although it is evident that Danby’s head is their bargaining chip, which they intend to exchange for James’s exclusion from the succession. Thwarted in this, the pair arrange instead for the conviction and condemning of Lord Stafford – an act that requires Charles either to acquiesce to the judicial murder of a loyal and innocent man, or to spare him and damn himself with the English people. Charles is fully aware that if he pardons Stafford, he will give Parliament exactly the weapon it wants. He tries to make Stafford “confess”, arguing that he can then save his life, but Stafford won’t buy his life with a false oath. Still Charles hesitates. It is Catherine who convinces him that he must proceed, or he will lose everything he has fought for – and proceed he does…

In the middle of all this, the series pauses to give us Nell Gwynn’s moment of transcendant glory when, having been taken for that of “that Papist whore”, meaning Louise de Kéroualle, her coach is violently attacked by the London mob: “Good people, you are mistaken. I am the Protestant whore!”

Meanwhile, Monmouth has been on a “publicity tour”, travelling the country and gaining the affection and support of the people – which doesn’t exactly endear him to his father. It is here that the series begins to give us a Charles who is mysteriously prescient about future events, in this case telling Monmouth that he will never be king, and that if he kicks against this fate, he will die a traitor’s death. He then sends Monmouth, too, into exile, telling him on no account to return until summoned. But come back he does, on Shaftesbury’s command…

And here we jump abruptly to the dissolution of Parliament at Oxford, Charles’s supreme moment of individual defiance, and the final defeat of the Exclusionists. In the wake of this, a bewildered Monmouth is sent into permanent exile, a cynical Buckingham simply shrugs and withdraws from politics, while for Shaftesbury, his own mortality staring him in the face, it is the end of everything.

And then we jump again to the series’ uncomfortably awkward final scenes, which has all of the remaining characters (those not in exile) passing their time together, while the suddenly all-knowing Charles predicts each and every one of the various events that will transpire over the next four or five years. Frankly, I find the potted-history approach used here rather irritating. We could have had the Rye House Plot instead of this. Anyway, the series proper concludes when Charles suffers a stroke, but staggers out to his father’s portrait and appeals desperately for his approval before collapsing. In the wake of Charles’s death, we get still more potted history, with each character reciting his or her own fate, which in the case of William of Orange means ascending to the English throne – but it is Charles in voiceover who gets the final word. These closing moments carry far more of a sense of what England lost with the passing of Charles, than of what it gained.

02/12/2010

Well, T.S.

To the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever attempted to assign an author to the initials appended to The Perplex’d Prince – “T.S.” – but I do rather wonder…

I pointed out the reference to Absalom And Achitopel in the preface to The Perplex’d Prince. I didn’t realise it at the time, but there’s a second Dryden poem mentioned there: The Medal. This was a reaction to the reaction to the dismissal of the charges against the Earl of Shaftesbury (if you follow me), after he was accused of high treason in the wake of the Exclusion Crisis. His supporters marked the occasion by pressing a medal that showed a symbolic Shaftesbury, in the form of a sun, emerging from behind black clouds.

Dryden’s response was The Medal, or A Satyr Against Sedition, a poem it is said was [*cough, cough*] suggested by Charles himself. This bitter attack upon Shaftesbury and his followers brought Dryden still more into the public eye, and not everyone was happy about it.

One of those who responded in print was Thomas Shadwell, a poet and playwright – and fervent Protestant. Shadwell and Dryden had once been friends and collaborators, but Dryden’s acceptance of a position at Charles’s court put an end to that. After the publication of The Medal, Shadwell retaliated with The Medal Of John Bayes: A Satyr Against Folly And Knavery, a brutal attack on Dryden himself. Nothing loath, Dryden hit right back with Mac Flecknoe: A Satyr On The Trew-Blue-Protestant Poet, T.S., and then took another swing in the second part of Absalom And Achitopel, in which Shadwell appears – unflatteringly, I need hardly say – in the character of Og.

It was Dryden’s use of Shadwell’s initials in Mac Flecknoe, and his assumption that the reading public would know who “T.S.” was, that made me wonder whether Shadwell could possibly have been the author of The Perplex’d Prince – and whether Dryden even meant to imply that it was so. The pamphlet fits with Shadwell’s declared politics, certainly, but what interests me more is the dismissive way in which Dryden’s hugely successful poems are mentioned in the preface, being ranked alongside the mere disposable detritus of the literary world.

Then again, such a manoeuvre may have been too subtle for Shadwell, who apparently preferred the fist to the sword. Perhaps a third party, the true author, made use of Shadwell’s initials, either to hide behind them or just as a joke. Or perhaps it was another T.S. altogether: there was a Thomas Sprat writing at the time, but he seems to have been a straightforward royalist, so that makes it improbable. Anyway, I like to think it was Shadwell.

John Dryden remained Poet Laureate through the reigns of Charles and James, but when James went, so did he – to be succeeded by his arch-rival. Thomas Shadwell may have lost the literary war against John Dryden, but with his own appointment to the position of Poet Laureate under William, he certainly had the last laugh.

29/11/2010

The Fugitive Statesman, In Requital For The Perplex’d Prince

The Faction, amongst the many Instances they have so frequently given of their Spleen and Hatred to the Government, hardly ever showed their Malice more in any one particular, than in the Business of the Black Box, which furnish’d a Pretext to a Libel, call’d The Perplex’d Prince; which, tho’ but poorly writ, yet the malignity of the Design being to poyson Peoples Minds with an Opinion of some Probability and Truth in this Matter. It was thought fit in Return, to shew the World one of their Principal Heroes, in his true Colours.

So – the Earl of Shaftesbury. We really do need to consider the Earl of Shaftesbury before we consider the Exclusion Crisis, and we really need to consider the Exclusion Crisis before we consider The Fugitive Statesman. Such is the nature of the literature of the late 17th century.

Briefly, then (or as briefly as I can manage), Anthony Ashley Cooper was a major political figure throughout the Interregnum and the reign of Charles II. He was a member of the Convention Parliament, which agreed that monarchy should be restored, and for the first years of Charles’ reign he was a strong supporter of the king. During this time he was in great favour with Charles, being created Earl of Shaftesbury and serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer and as Lord Chancellor of England.

However, a rift eventually began to grow between the two over the question of the succession. In 1669, Shaftesbury was amongst those who urged Charles to dissolve his fruitless marriage to Catherine of Braganza. Nothing came of this at the time, but in 1673 the Parliament passed the Test Act, under which all those holding military or civil office were required to take Anglican communion every year, and to renounce Catholic doctrine. There had been rumours about James’s conversion to Catholicism for years (he had in fact converted in 1667), and a month after the passing of the Test Act, he failed to take the Easter communion. Six months after that, he married Mary of Modena.

Until that moment, the question of James’s own religion was tempered by the fact that his daughters and heirs, Mary and Anne, were Protestants; but now there was the threat of a Catholic prince. Shaftesbury and others again urged Charles to dispense with Catherine and remarry, and a motion was passed in the House of Commons condemning James’s marriage. This was the beginning of Shaftesbury’s fall from grace at court, and his emergence as a leader of a new political party that (after a flurry of mutual name-calling) would eventually be known as the Whigs.

The question of the succession and the role of Parliament under monarchy were two of the dominant issues that defined this new Opposition, and throughout the 1670s a series of bitter political battles was fought on both these fronts, with Charles repeatedly proroguing or dissolving Parliament in order to stop the passage of bills. During this time, various attempts made either to exclude James from the succession, or to impose conditions upon it, such as demanding that his children be raised Protestant.

In the middle of 1678, the Popish Plot broke, bringing the already prevailing mood of anti-Catholicism to a new fever pitch. Shaftesbury was active in the ensuing investigations, and began to win a reputation amongst the English people as a defender of the Protestant faith. Over the following years he campaigned vigorously for James’s exclusion and the legitimising of Monmouth, who had begun to agitate on his own behalf – and was sent into exile by his father for his pains. Shaftesbury also tried to have the Duke of York indicted as a recusant, and while he failed at that, he did succeed in convincing Monmouth to return to England, where his arrival was greeted with widespread celebration by the general population.

However, all of the measures taken to remove James and secure Monmouth’s position eventually came to nothing. The final blow for the Exclusionists was the dissolution of the so-called Oxford Parliament of 1681 – the last Parliament of Charles’s reign. In the wake of this, Shaftesbury was arrested and charged with high treason. He was subsequently acquitted, courtesy of a combination of weak evidence and a stacked jury, but his days were numbered. During 1682, Shaftesbury put much effort into urging an open rebellion led by Monmouth, but when this failed he fled England for Amsterdam, where he died in December of that year.

It is not difficult to understand why much of the literature of this time is highly political in nature. Supporters of both factions took advantage of a comparative freedom of the presses to sway the reading populace to their cause. In terms of the quality of these productions, however, Dryden’s Absalom And Architophel is an extreme exception: most of them are political to the exclusion of literary merit. We’ve met one example already, in the form of The Perplex’d Prince, which was published at a time when the Popish Plot’s chief instigator, Titus Oates, had been exposed as a perjurer (although not charged or convicted) and expelled from Whitehall, and yet matter-of-factly asserts the reality of the Plot and openly accuses James of trying to murder his brother. And on the other side of the political fence we find the self-explanatory The Fugitive Statesman, In Requital For The Perplex’d Prince, which was published in 1683.

In requital is almost understating things. The Fugitive Statesman copies its inspiration’s use of the roman à clef, and produces a one-sided account of the Exclusion Crisis in which all of the characters are given fictitious identities; fictitious identities with which we are already quite familiar – as by this time were many of England’s readers. In short, The Fugitive Statesman steals the metaphorical language of John Dryden: the English people are the Jews, Charles is David, Monmouth is Absalom, Shaftesbury is Achitophel, the Catholics are the Jebusites, and so on. It also steals pieces of Dryden’s poetry and twists them into prose. For example, Achitopel working on Absalom’s ambitions and ego – “Not that your father’s mildness I contemn; But manly force becomes the diadem” – is turned into, “Not that David’s Gentle Temper is to be despised, but it is a greater Virtue in a private Person, or an Ecclesiastick than a Soveraign, and a Masculine Soul is certainly fitter for a Throne.” And there are many more instances of this kind of thing. Whether the passing reference to Absalom And Achitopel in the preface to The Perplex’d Prince put this approach into the author’s mind, whether it was intended as a tribute to Dryden, or whether it was a shameless attempt to ride the coattails of Dryden’s success, I really couldn’t say – although my money’s on the latter.

Reading The Fugitive Statesman is rather a chore. Its author doesn’t write about his subject so much as beat it into the ground, employing a ranting, Oh, and another thing – !! style that becomes perversely funny even as it becomes more and more tiresome. The pamphlet also has a habit (evidently assuming a thorough knowledge of the details of the Exclusion Crisis and of Absalom And Achitophel) of throwing name after name at the reader with a minimum of context, which not only makes for a confusing read, but in the end very nearly defeats the author’s purpose: you just can’t be bothered with it. In The Perplex’d Prince, cracking the code seems like a game; here it feels like homework. This is a sample:

Thereupon taking his leave he went to the Rendezvous, where he found Absalom, Zimri, Nadab, Shimei, Corah, Ishban, Belial, Rabsheka, Judas, Phaleg, Ben-Jochanan, Balack, Og and Doeg, with many others of all sorts and Conditions…

Still…if you can stick with it, there are some real insights here into the thinking of the time. The author, obviously a hardcore royalist, takes the position that kings are divinely anointed and that interfering with the succession is therefore blasphemous as well as treasonous. In its presentation of Charles, this pamphlet outdoes even The Perplex’d Prince: the king is no longer merely “valiant, wise and religious”, but quite literally “God-like”. In their opposition to the king’s will, then, Shaftesbury and his followers were perceived as doing the devil’s work – also literally. In Absalom And Achitopel, there is a reference to Shaftesbury as “Hell’s dire agent”; the author of The Fugitive Statesman latches onto this, referring to his Achitopel repeatedly as “Hell’s Minister” and “the hellish Contriver”, and speaking of his “Devilish Machinations”.

In this version of events, although Achitopel and his ilk intend to enrich themselves by taking over the estates and properties of those who remained loyal to David, once they have succeeded in overthrowing him (it was for the same reason that they rebelled against David’s father, and provoked civil war), for the most part they seem intent upon anarchy for anarchy’s sake. As for Achitopel himself, it turns out that a major motivation is that he thinks acting against David will help to get him into one particular’s woman’s—well, whatever it was that women wore under their dresses in 1683.

In pursuit of his ends – and her end – there is nothing so vile and dishonest that Achitopel will not stoop to it. It was he, for instance, who devised the Popish Plot, and bought the services of Titus Oates:

I once made him pretend himself a Jebusite, that so getting Acquaintance with those of that Sect, he might be the more able to varnish with probability the Matters he is to attest. This Fellow’s Livelihood must depend on his evidence; and he shall…swear, that the Queen and the next Heir are in the Plot against the King.”

And it was he who invented the story of Absalom’s legitimacy:

He likewise gave out that there was a certain Instrument preserved in a Black Box, being the Contract of Marriage between David and Absalom’s Mother, and a settlement of the Crown upon the Issue he might have by that Lady.

And it was he who started that ridiculous rumour about David undertaking secret negotiations with “Pharaoh” (Louis XIV), as well as the one about Solomon’s Jebusitism…

One of the more interesting aspects of The Fugitive Statesmen is its refusal to accept that James was actually a Catholic, preferring instead to see assertions to that effect as merely a piece of mud-slinging, something Shaftesbury and his followers made up to suit their purposes. At the same time, there is a note of uncertainty in the author’s handling of this that is noticeably absent from the rest of the pamphlet: his protestations that James is not, not, NOT a Catholic tail finally off into, And even if he was, he could easily be brought back to Protestantism…

But without doubt, the aspect of this pamphlet that resonates most strongly today is its bitter reaction to the one piece of legislation successfully passed while all this political brawling was going on: the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. Although today we regard habeas corpus of one of the cornerstones of law, the author of The Fugitive Statesman saw things a little differently:

“…a Law the Seditionaries had taken care to have pass’d some time before the breaking out of the Plot, by this Law in case of Bail offered no Man could be detained in Prison… Thus Law and Justice were perverted in these wicked Men’s hands…”

The Fugitive Statesman exults over the downfall of Achitopel and his party after the “Baharim Parliament”, and Achitopel’s consignment to the Tower of London, but is not the least little bit happy over his subsequent acquittal. It has an explanation for the jury’s verdict, however:

Were not they themselves as well engaged as he in the Conspiracy? …And people of their Mould and Principles always make Conscience, give way, and submit to Self-Preservation and Interest… Thus was the Arch-Traytor again set at Liberty…”

But this is only a temporary reprieve:

“…to find all his Devilish Wiles and Practices display’d and expos’d to the eyes of all People, to find he was become the abomination of all the sound and honest part of mankind, Achitopel laying all these things to heart, I say, put an end to his loathed Life in such wise as the World well knows.”

So there.

(I should perhaps mention that while the biblical Achitopel committed suicide, his real-life counterpart did not.)

Despite the limitless evil ascribed to the Exclusionists by The Fugitive Statesman, the fact is, they lacked teeth. For one thing, although they used it as a threat, most assuredly they did not want civil war. However, from their own point of view, probably the bigger problem was that, although they did not want James, they didn’t really want Monmouth, either: he was just the lesser of the two evils, where there was no third option – or so it seemed. At the time, it did not occur to anyone to do anything so desperate as “invite” an invasion. The dissolution of the Oxford Parliament of 1681 was really the end of this particular crisis: when James did succeed his brother in February of1685, there was barely a ripple of reaction.

Of course, the overriding irony here was that once James took the throne, he began to do exactly what the Exclusionists had warned he would – whether or not they only said it to scaremonger – changing the laws around religious practice, appointing Catholics to important positions, building a standing army, and trying to remove himself from the control of Parliament. Even the hard-line Tories who had fought to protect the royal line weren’t prepared to stand for all that, and another crisis began to build. However, long before that, indeed only four months into James’s reign, the next upheaval to impact significantly upon the literature of the time occurred: the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.

25/11/2010

Absalom And Achitophel

I should probably begin this post with a disclaimer: this will be in no way, shape or form a proper attempt to analyse or engage with John Dryden’s Absalom And Achitophel, but is intended merely to bring it to the attention of those who may not be aware of it or of its significance – as I was not, until quite recently.

Although his first important appointment was under Cromwell, Dryden’s reaction to the Restoration in Astraea Redux makes his passionate Royalist feelings clear; and he would continue to celebrate Charles II in his poetry even whole earning the bulk of his living as a playwright – something Charles also made possible, of course. However, Dryden’s ambitions were always for his poetry, and his breakthrough work was 1667’s Annus Mirabilis, which both established him as England’s pre-eminent poetic talent and went a long way towards securing him the position of Poet Laureate, to which he was appointed the following year.

Dryden held the position of Laureate through the reigns of Charles and James, often acting as a kind of literary weapon for the former. Loyal as he was to Charles, Dryden was involved in a number of ongoing feuds with some of those around the king, including the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester, who were often satirised in his poems and plays. These were turbulent years, as we have seen, the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis. As early as 1669 there were attempts made to persuade Charles to divorce Catherine of Braganza or to annul their marriage, and to remarry in order to produce a legitimate Protestant heir. Charles had refused. A decade later, the situation reached crisis point, with the Popish Plot creating an atmosphere of violent anti-Catholicism, and the Parliament, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, attempting to have legislation passed that would exclude the Catholic Duke of York from succeeding his brother; and, when this failed, calling upon Charles directly to legitimise his eldest son, the Duke of Monmouth, in order to establish a Protestant heir to the English throne. This, too, failed.

Towards the end of 1681, John Dryden published Absalom And Achitophel, an extraordinary satirical work wherein the events of the preceding three years and the circumstances that provoked them are reconfigured in the form of religious and historical allegory. The basis of the work is the biblical story of David and Absalom, and the rebellion of the latter, although a dearly beloved son, against his father, the king. In Dryden’s work, Charles II becomes David, and the Duke of Monmouth, Absalom; but there is barely a figure involved in the politics of the time who does not appear in the poem in one guise or another. The most critical, of course, is the Earl of Shaftesbury, otherwise Achitophel. In the Old Testament, Achitophel is David’s advisor, but betrays him and supports Absalom in his rebellion. By late in the 17th century, “Achitophel” had become a generic term of abuse for anyone seen as betraying his principles, and thus its application to Shaftesbury was a doubly loaded one.

Here a few brief extracts, just to give a taste of the work and to introduce the major players. First, the Jewish (English) people, whose agitations after a delusory “freedom” led first to civil war, and then to the regretted reigns of Saul (Oliver Cromwell) and his son, “the foolish Ishbosheth” (Richard Cromwell); and who cannot be satisfied even under the indulgent David:

      The Jews, a headstrong, moody, murm’ring race,
      As ever tri’d th’extent and stretch of grace;
      God’s pamper’d people whom, debauch’d with ease,
      No king could govern, nor no God could please;
      (Gods they had tri’d of every shape and size,
      That god-smiths could produce, or priests devise:)
      These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,
      Began to dream they wanted liberty…

David, we find, is unable to produce a legitimate heir, but looks with favour upon Absalom:

      Michal, of royal blood, the crown did wear;
      A soil ungrateful to the tiller’s care:
      Not so the rest; for several mothers bore
      To god-like David, several sons before.
      But since like slaves his bed they did ascend,
      No true succession could their seed attend.
      Of all this numerous progeny was none
      So beautiful, so brave, as Absalom…

And there are those who recognise in the native impatience of the “moody, murm’ring” Jews and the dissatisfaction with his lot on the part of Absalom an opportunity for rebellion, and for self-aggrandisement – chief amongst them, Achitophel:

      Some had in courts been great, and thrown from thence,
      Like fiends, were harden’d in impenitence.
      Some by their monarch’s fatal mercy grown,
      From pardon’d rebels, kinsmen to the throne;
      Were rais’d in pow’r and public office high;
      Strong bands, if bands ungrateful men could tie.

      Of these the false Achitophel was first:
      A name to all succeeding ages curst.
      For close designs, and crooked counsels fit;
      Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit:
      Restless, unfixt in principles and place…

And Achitophel begins to work upon the susceptible Absalom, who at first resists the schemer’s lures, acknowledging both his debt to David and that he has no legitimate claim to the throne:

      His favour leaves me nothing to require;
      Prevents my wishes, and out-runs desire.
      What more can I expect while David lives?
      All but his kingly diadem he gives:
      And that: but there he paus’d; then sighing, said,
      Is justly destin’d for a worthier head…

Seeing Absalom swayed by his ambitions, Achitophel persists, and Absalom begins to feel the stirrings of rebellion in his soul:

      Why am I scanted by a niggard-birth?
      My soul disclaims the kindred of her earth:
      And made for empire, whispers me within;
      Desire of greatness is a god-like sin.

      Him staggering so when Hell’s dire agent found,
      While fainting virtue scarce maintain’d her ground,
      He pours fresh forces in, and thus replies:

      Th’eternal God, supremely good and wise,
      Imparts not these prodigious gifts in vain;
      What wonders are reserv’d to bless your reign?
      Against your will your arguments have shown,
      Such virtue’s only giv’n to guide a throne.
      Not that your father’s mildness I contemn;
      But manly force becomes the diadem…

And on the way through, our old friend Titus Oates rates a heavily sarcastic mention:

      To speak the rest, who better are forgot,
      Would tire a well-breath’d witness of the plot:
      Yet, Corah, thou shalt from oblivion pass;
      Erect thyself thou monumental brass:
      High as the serpent of thy metal made,
      While nations stand secure beneath thy shade…

Absalom And Achitophel then metaphorically traces the course of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, concluding with the triumph of “David” and the exposure and disgrace of “Achitophel”. And in reality, the failure of the Exclusionists left the Earl of Shaftesbury in a perilous situation. In July of 1681 he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he remained for the next four months, awaiting trial on charges of high treason.

Examined as history and not as poetry, we can appreciate how carefully Dryden treads in Absalom And Achitophel, praising David at every reasonable opportunity while also scolding him gently for sometimes allowing the father to supersede the king, and for being overindulgent to those ungrateful “murm’ring” Jews; emphasising “Absalom”’s outstanding personal qualities and arguing that it his very “kingliness”, the unavoidable gift of his father, which brought him to the point of rebellion; and pouring the bulk of the blame upon the scheming, treacherous “Achitophel”.

Dryden’s work was an enormous success, both as poetry and as propaganda, influencing not only the public perception of the events of the Exclusion Crisis, but impacting upon other political writers of the time, as we shall see. In 1682, a second part of the poem was published, but although it was sketched out by Dryden, most of it was written by someone else (probably Nahum Tate), except for a few passages in which Dryden takes pot-shots at some personal enemies; one in particular…